If Tim Duncan retired today, he’d be remembered as the single greatest power forward in basketball history, owner of four championship rings and three NBA Finals MVPs. And yet, in his waning years, he finds himself in a familiar position: an integral cog in a machine with championship aspirations. Should the 2012 San Antonio Spurs hang yet another banner in AT&T Center, a question will have to be asked: is Tim Duncan, not Kobe Bryant, the greatest player of his generation?
Short answer, yes.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that Duncan wins his fifth ring this June, and neither he nor Kobe wins another for the rest of their careers. Tied at five, the best way to gauge their legacies is by comparing championship circumstances. Duncan was drafted by a talented (but aging) David Robinson-anchored Spurs team, making his presence felt immediately. By the end of his second season, Duncan hoisted his first of three Finals MVP trophies, shouldering the team’s scoring burden while Robinson stepped into a more complementary role. Duncan would claim top dog for at least 10 more years, eventually letting Manu Ginobili* and now Tony Parker** to take the reins. He isn’t the player he once was, but remains an incredibly good starter, averaging 15 points and nine rebounds per game as a 36-year-old.
Kobe has been a machine since he entered the league, winning five rings in a 16-year career. Three of those rings came as second-banana, and two came as the Laker’s undisputed leader. For as great as he is, it’s hard not to give his three Shaq-produced rings a side-eyed stare. Playing with a force like Shaq – someone who handled the bulk of opposing team’s defensive pressure – ensured that Bryant’s transition into the NBA would be smoother than Duncan’s, who underwent a trial-by-fire. To his advantage, Timmy D.’s been incredibly fortunate to play his whole career under the guidance of the incredible Greg Popovich, who has to be considered the best coach of the past 20 years not named Phil Jackson. However, you can add that as an advantage of his tremendous teamwork that he’s kept the same coach while Kobe’s run through about four or five during his career.
Is it fair to deduct points from Kobe for playing with Shaq, even now, eight years after the fact? When comparing his legacy to someone like Duncan, who took the league by storm and never looked back, yes, it is. If Tim Duncan can add one more ring to his resume, he should be considered his generation’s best, not Bryant.
* – Someone should write a book about Manu Ginobili’s career. Is he better served as a starter, or a sixth man? Where would his career be if injuries didn’t take a toll? Does he have legitimate Hall of Fame aspirations? The only thing everyone can really agree on is that the Spurs wouldn’t be the Spurs without his timely shooting and agile cuts to the basket.
** – It’s hard to say when Tony Parker really became the Spurs’ number one. His 2007 Finals MVP should have been the beginning of the Tony Parker era, but because his game never shot through the ceiling like so many thought it would, and because Duncan continued a Hall of Fame run of basketball, the post-2007 Spurs were still Duncan’s team. The past two seasons – with Duncan experiencing a noticeable decline – have really reinforced the notion that this is Parker’s team.